A vascular surgeon specializes in the treatment of disorders of the vascular and lymphatic systems. The vascular system consists of all the body's arteries and veins, while the lymphatic system transports vital blood components from the veins and arteries to the cells. This type of surgeon performs nearly all venal or arterial surgery, with the exception of procedures done to vessels within the brain and heart — these are typically performed by a neurosurgeon or cardiothoracic surgeon.
Until the 1970s, most vascular surgery was a responsibility of general surgeons. During that decade, however, medical professionals in Great Britain, Australia and the United States successfully lobbied to create training programs for surgeons who specialized in vascular surgical techniques. In the US, a vascular surgeon must complete a five-year general surgical residency followed by one to two years of additional surgical training focused on the vascular system.
Sometimes referred to as vascular surgical physicians, these specialists may prescribe medication or therapy, order non-invasive diagnostic testing and perform a variety of diagnostic and surgical procedures. While traditional vascular surgery usually focused on the treatment conditions such as aneurysms and embolisms, current vascular surgery includes many endovascular procedures. Endovascular procedures generally involve the placement of catheters or stents to maintain open arteries or veins.
Vascular surgery is also often used to treat abdominal aneurysms or help prevent strokes. If found in advance, a specialist may surgically treat blocked arteries in the neck or upper chest to help prevent a possible stroke. He or she may also surgically address vascular trauma or surgically redirect blood vessels in patients with poor circulation due to conditions such as diabetes and peripheral vascular disease.
Patients with problems of the lymphatic system, such as lymphedema, may also require the care of a vascular surgeon. Lymphedema is the retention of the fluids that carry blood products from the vessels to the cells. A surgeon may also consult with patients suffering from scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that causes hardening of tissues, or Raynaud's syndrome, a disorder of the extremities that is characterized by blood vessel spasms and decreased blood flow.
Although this medical specialty is a comparatively new one, the number jobs in the field is growing. This may be due to increasing numbers of treatable vascular disorders as well as improved diagnostics that have led to early detection of and intervention for vascular diseases. Since this type of medical care requires great skill, these specialist surgeons are often well paid.